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BAHRAIN: Passport Confiscation Still Hounds Migrant Workers

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Jun 4 2010 (IPS) - When Abdulkhaliq Mohammed arrived in Bahrain as a contract labourer 20 years ago, the first thing he did on setting foot in the oil-rich Gulf state was to hand his passport over to his employer.

The 43-year-old Bangladeshi national told IPS that he feels his boss is “in control of his life.” He has been asked to undertake numerous tasks for his employer’s kin without any additional compensation, saying he had no choice but to simply obey his orders under pain of deportation or non-payment of his wages.

“I don’t share a normal employee-employer relationship with my boss,” he rued.

Passport confiscation is considered an illegal practice in Bahrain. Yet it persists, based on complaints from migrant workers like Mohammed. It also underlies numerous forms of manipulation or exploitation that many of these workers reportedly put up with to keep their jobs.

New York-based Human Right Watch reported in November 2009 that passport confiscation was still one of the issues of labour exploitation confronting Bahrain, considered one of the riches states in the Gulf region.

Bahrain’s Labor Ministry should hold employers who withhold wages and passports from migrant employees accountable, said the HRW report. Both practices are illegal under Bahraini law, but authorities do little to enforce compliance, added the report.

The HRW cited the case of Muhammad Naseer, an Indian citizen, who in October 2009 filed a complaint with the Labour Ministry against his Bahraini employer who he claimed had refused to pay him nearly four months of back wages and withheld his passport, effectively preventing him from returning home. The Ministry retrieved his passport but not his unpaid salaries.

“International human rights law recognises the right of every person to freedom of movement within a state, and to leave any country, and to return to his or her own country,” said HRW.

In its latest report, released in January, HRW slammed Bahrain anew, alongside other Gulf states, for migrant abuses that include passport confiscation.

Based on quarterly data released by the Labour Market Regulatory Authority of Bahrain, the country had a total labour force of 593,660 as of the end of March. Of these, only 23 percent, or 138,356, are Bahrainis while the rest are mainly migrant workers.

Labour Ministry Undersecretary Jameel Humadan admitted to IPS that illegal labour practices, including employers holding their workers’ passports, still exist in his country. “We cannot say that Bahrain is free of such offences, but the violators could be a handful of people and do not represent the entire labour market,” he said.

He added that Bahrain is committed to international labour conventions and the principles laid down by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that oppose, among other illegal practices, the confiscation of passports of migrant workers.

HRW reported that in August 2009 Bahrain amended the ‘kafala’ (sponsorship) system, which tied migrants’ work visas and immigration status to their employers. Under the amended law, the government officially sponsors each worker, freeing the latter to change employers more easily. But “it remains unclear whether the reform has been fully implemented,” said HRW in its January 2010 report.

The ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work recognises migrant workers’ right to freedom of movement and the right to leave.

It said “these rights might justifiably be restricted for a number of legitimate reasons” but stressed that “the confiscation of a passport to ensure that a migrant worker completes his or her work cannot constitute a legitimate State objective.”

“We agree for employers to keep the passports of their employees, only if the latter ask them to keep them in a safe place. They have to hand them back immediately when employees ask for them without having to state their reasons,” said Humadan. He did not say, however, why some migrant workers would choose to entrust their passports to their employers for safekeeping.

“The Bahrain government, through the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Interior, does not accept or tolerate exploitation of migrant or local workers as their rights are protected by law,” Humadan explained.

The Indian Embassy affirmed Bahrain’s efforts to protect the rights of local and migrant workers.

“We appreciate the dedication of the Bahrain government to promote better labour (conditions) for the workforce,” First Secretary and Head of Chancery at the Indian Embassy, Ajay Kumar, told IPS. “Authorities in the Bahrain government do take appropriate action on receipt of specific complaints from migrant workers.”

Most of the estimated 300,000 Indian nationals in Bahrain are “working happily for their employers,” said Kumar.

The Pakistani Embassy similarly acknowledged Bahrain‘s efforts to address labour issues confronting migrants, including those from Pakistan, estimated at 30,000, he said.

“There is no chance for some companies to cheat workers if we inform them beforehand about their rights. However, we guarantee that most of our nationals are being treated with respect and according to human rights (principles),” the Embassy’s First Secretary, Mohammed Saleem, told IPS.

Notwithstanding such assurances, Abdulnabi Al Ekri, a human rights activist and president of the Bahrain Transparency Society, a non-governmental anti- corruption body, said the situation of migrant workers is far worse than what the government and foreign embassies make it out to be.

Why, even expatriates in managerial posts do not have their passports with them, he said. “Those managers are lucky,” he said, “as they can get their passport back more easily than the labourers, who many of whom are underpaid and endure harsh conditions, making it difficult for them to leave the country without the approval of their employers.”

He added that many of these workers are not even aware that confiscation of passports is illegal in Bahrain.

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